Feeling anxious? Suffering from whiplash or tennis elbow? Why not stick a needle in your ear!
Yes, all these conditions and more can be managed by ear acupuncture … or so it’s claimed. What does the science say? The buck stops ear, folks! Let’s find out more.
Acupuncture is a pillar of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). In this system, you’ve got your life force energy called qi. Qi flows from your vital organs outwards through the body via channels called meridians. If the flow of qi is disrupted or imbalanced, so the theory goes, your health suffers.
By inserting fine needles into your body at certain points along the meridians (and a few other important places), acupuncturists say they can rebalance your qi and heal you.
Ear acupuncture is sometimes called auriculotherapy or auricular acupuncture. It’s the same deal, but it focuses only on the acupuncture points found in your ears.
A typical ear acupuncture appointment could take up to an hour. And it’s vital to visit a licensed, qualified and experiences acupuncturist to ensure a safe experience.
Acupuncturists claim there are more than 200 individual points in the ear which each have a different effect when the needle is applied. Some schools of thought may differ, but you’ll typically see the five most important points listed as the:
- Autonomic point, which affects your nervous system
- Shen Men, which calms anxiety
- Kidney point, this affects your internal organs
- Liver point, the point responsible for blood flow and purity
- Lung point, which deals with breathing
Proper mapping of the ear is vital because some of these points have very different effects to their neighbors. The antihistamine point, for example, is right next to the one for testicular secretion. For the record, ovary secretions are next to the subcortex.
Some acupuncturists use the image of an inverted fetus (as it would be at about 34-ish weeks of pregnancy) and map it against the ear. This is because the lower ear pressure points deal with conditions affecting the head. Internal organs are in the middle of the ear, the spine and lower body are located at the top of the ear.
Others represent this by using an upside-down map of the ear so it’s easier to visualize how pressure points correlate to different areas on your body. Either way, there are some exceptions and contradictions; one of the highest points on the ear actually deals with the tonsils.
The most common conditions which ear acupuncturists claim to be able to treat include:
- Chronic pain
- Pain from surgery (particularly cancer surgery)
- Problems with digestion
Some professionals also say they can use ear acupuncture for things like muscle spasms, whiplash, inflammation, tinnitus; the list goes on and on.
Obviously, that’s a pretty broad range of conditions for one treatment to tackle. You might be wondering how much hard evidence there is backing it all up …
Acupuncture often gets lumped in with other alternative medicines as pseudoscience or quackery. It won’t shock you to hear that hard evidence is lacking for qi, meridians, or any associated mystical concept.
However, there are a number of small-scale studies out there which suggest ear acupuncture might have tangible medical value:
- In 2017, researchers suggested ear acupuncture might be able to relive pain in emergencies.
- In 2020, evidence hinted that ear acupuncture might be good for helping treat trauma after disasters.
- Another review from the same year theorized that ear acupuncture is better than a placebo for tackling obesity.
- A 2021 trial found that ear acupuncture could be good for treating insomnia, stress and anxiety.
BUT, there’s one common theme running through all these limited studies – in the vast majority of cases, sample sizes were small and the resulting data wasn’t of the highest quality. This is particularly true when it comes to the longer-term effects of ear acupuncture.
Efforts are being made to standardize and improve the quality of ear acupuncture trials. For the time being, there don’t appear to be any safety risks posed by this type of alternative medicine, and it’s often delivered alongside other treatments.
If you feel it could help you, it’s highly recommended to seek qualified medical professionals’ advice first.
Your first ear acupuncture session could last anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour, depending on what you’re trying to fix. Every acupuncturist will work slightly differently, but most sessions should follow a loose format.
1: The interview
The therapist will start by asking a series of questions to get a sense of your medical status. Topics could include your sleeping pattern, sex life, stress levels, not everything might seem immediately relevant to the reason you’re there.
Don’t be alarmed. Acupuncture takes a holistic, interconnected view of the body. It connects systems which mainstream medicine might not think are actually linked. Answer as honestly as you can to get the best possible acupuncture experience.
2: The treatment
We’re assuming you’re only here for ear acupuncture, in which case you’ll get your treatment while seated. If you’re getting more points looked at, you may be invited to lie face-down.
From there, the therapist will use sterilized single-use needles to work the chosen pressure points. These are hella thin, so you should hardly feel them going in. The needles are left in for the duration of the treatment, which might feel odd for a moment while you get used to it.
Most people may experience deep relaxation during an acupuncture treatment due to the release of serotonin, endorphins, and dopamine naturally from your brain. New patients might even feel sleepy. For this reason, it’s often recommended to rest after a treatment.
Once the treatment is complete, the needles will be removed (again, usually painlessly) and disposed of.
3: The follow-up
You might get asked a few quick questions after the treatment to see how it went. If you book a second appointment, the therapist might offer you some other types of TCM to supplement the acupuncture.
When it’s done properly by a licensed provider, ear acupuncture is usually safe. But there are risks to acupuncture if it’s not performed right. These include:
- Infection from dirty needles
- Puncture wounds
- Nerve damage
More commonly, some people experience mild nausea or dizziness during acupuncture. Of course, there’s also the possibility of pain and tenderness to the areas being treated. Cos, ya know … needles.
It might be a good idea to speak with your health care provider if you’re taking blood thinners or have a bleeding disorder like hemophilia.
Finally, there is one pressure point which is said to induce labor. Science has yet to make a firm ruling on that, but for now, pregnant people should speak with a health pro about acupuncture if you’d like to go that route.
If you’re going to try ear acupuncture, it’s vital to visit someone’s that’s qualified and accredited by a reputable body, wherever in the world you live.
If you’re in the US, the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM) is the only organization who validates acupuncturists. They keep an updated list of licensed acupuncturists on their website.
Alternatively, your doctor or other mainstream health professional might be able to recommend an acupuncturist near you. The UK’s National Health Service (NHS), for example, gives information on acupuncture and links to trusted providers.
Don’t be afraid to ask your prospective new provider some questions to get a feel for their credibility. They should have no trouble talking about their qualifications and experience.
If needles aren’t your thing, consider using ear seeds instead. This is actually acupressure – an alternative to acupuncture which uses the same qi-balancing points across the ear. A licensed therapist will use tiny little stickers with a seed attached to them, placing them on your ear so that the seeds press into the right points.
You’ll then spent the next three to five days being able to gently massage those seeds, allegedly providing the same range of medical benefits as acupuncture. There’s a similar lack of quality evidence for how effective ear seeds really are at the moment, however, there’s not a lot of reason to feel unsafe either.
Side effects of ear seeds are usually limited to skin irritation from the stickers.
If you’re also following a proven course of medical treatment for a condition, there’s usually no reason not to back it up with ear acupressure if you want.
Acupuncture has developed over time into a complex art. While we seriously need more hard scientific data on the specific mechanisms it uses, some (preliminary) evidence seems to support it as a valid treatment.
Millions who’ve tried it swear by its effectiveness. As long as it accompanies a proven form of mainstream treatment, ear acupuncture could offer you some much-needed relief from a range of conditions. But make sure you’re visiting licensed acupuncturist only.